The Auctioneer’s Chant
It’s after lunch in McFarland, California, just north of Bakersfield, and the Idle Spur Cafe is almost empty. A couple in a nearby booth haggle over money in low tones while their child fidgets. A rancher chews the last of his hamburger and contemplates the semis rumbling by on Highway 99. A waitress scrubs tabletops. From a loudspeaker by the ceiling comes the hectic chant of the auctioneer selling cattle in the adjacent bid hall. It sounds like numbers revving up against a buzz saw — not quite a drone but not yet a melody. After another five minutes of this soundtrack, the waitress sighs and pulls the speaker off the wall. She smothers it in a tablecloth and tucks it facedown on a chair. “It drives me crazy,” she says to herself.
To the unwitting bystander, the auctioneer’s chant is a mulch of noise, often indecipherable. But to the auctioneers who spend their lives perfecting it, the chant is an obsession. It’s one part salesmanship, one part stagecraft, and all about the voice — a fretwork of rhythm, clarity, and control, set against a broiling stockyard theater.
There are a handful of legends in this world of competitive livestock auctioneering, men whose rapid-fire bid calls are as distinctive and personal as their DNA. There’s Ed Buckner, from Mexico, Missouri, who won the first World Livestock Auctioneer Championship, the Super Bowl of competitive auctioneering, in 1963. His chant had the tinny, galloping cadence of an old-time tent preacher. Then there’s Ralph Wade, from Greeley, Colorado, who won the title in 1974 with a baritone he seemed to dribble against the microphone.
Justin Mebane, the auctioneer in McFarland today, wants to join their ranks. Mebane has trained for the world championship for years. He was a finalist at the 2016 competition in Paris, Kentucky, and will likely be a finalist at next year’s in Billings, Montana. At 32, he’s boyish and relaxed, shaded by a wide-brimmed cowboy hat that nearly fluoresces in the sun. He’s auctioned here at Western Stockman’s Market, one of the biggest livestock auction markets in California, for ten years. During a sale, he sits in a cutout office above the sandy ring, into which cows are released, and chants into a microphone. To start, he must appraise each new animal. “When those cattle come across the ring,” Mebane says, “they’re somebody’s livelihood. It’s your responsibility to get as much as you possibly can for those cows.”
By now, he has a studied knowledge of market prices, and the chant is instinctive. “It’s almost like a muscle,” Mebane says. For two to three hours he chants and scans the crowd for any flicker that might denote a bid: a waved hand or ticket, or sometimes movement as subtle as a hat tip or a nod. His hands punctuate his call: An open palm sweeps the room for bids; a motion inward acknowledges a buyer. At times he seems to almost dance in his seat with a mild choreography of shrugs and handwork. He was taught never to point; it’s a matter of courtesy.
Mebane first learned his trade at a local auctioneering college when he was 19. The school, a nomadic seminar rather than a brick-and-mortar campus, teaches bid calling during an intensive three-day course led by veteran auctioneers, including Mebane’s mentor, Max Olvera, who won the championship title in 2000. Once billed as the youngest auctioneer in the world, Olvera appeared on the NBC reality show Real People when he was in sixth grade. By then, he’d been in the business four years — a seasoned wunderkind who got his start selling calves and baby goats. His turning point came in the 1980s when he discovered a cassette of Ralph Wade. “I would sit there and listen to that and listen to what he did and how he did it, and try to make it all work,” Olvera says. He competed in his first world championship when he was 13 years old.
For Olvera, the meat and potatoes of a successful chant are the filler words that buoy the numbers — simple words such as “dollar bid,” “dollar,” and “now.” Each auctioneer also spices his chant with a repertoire of phrases that are periodically updated; Mebane favors “Here we go, boys,” and “Here’s a powerful set of heifers; they’re good enough to go anywhere.” In the drills Olvera teaches, the bids are repeated three times, with a breath discreetly taken after the fifth repetition: “I’m bid one dollar, now two, now two, now two-dollar bid, now three, now three, now three-dollar bid, now four, now four, now four-dollar bid, now five, now five, now five-dollar bid.”
When Olvera teaches the chant, he sometimes asks students to count up to a thousand. Mebane remembers it as more like “all the way up to infinity.” One lesson required students to write their chants on paper and repeat them aloud until the strangeness wore off.
During a sale at the Turlock Livestock Auction Yard in Turlock, California, where he’s been a partner for the past decade, Olvera works with the casual athleticism of an air-traffic controller. Unlike Mebane, he steers his long-stemmed microphone back and forth, slaps the table, raises his arms in a kind of hallelujah gesture. Catchphrases tumble out quick as obscenities: “Look them over but don’t overlook them”; “Like them when you buy them”; “You want them young, you want them good.” On big sale days, Olvera enlists two ringmen to help spot bidders. The crowd, a slope of white cowboy hats, nods in solemn connoisseurship as each new set of cows skitters into the ring, and feet tap along with the tempo. It’s not exactly a song, but there’s a beat to it, headlong and precise.
Olvera is a devotee of the California style of auction chanting, which he describes as clear and rhythmic. Auctioneers from the South often have a more singsong effect, while those from the Midwest can chant in what Mebane calls a “machine-gun rattle.” When someone’s too monotone, “it’s like listening to a bad song every day,” Mebane says. “You need to keep them on their toes, entertained. You always want them looking every time the gate opens.”
Even now, as a former world champion, Olvera practices his chant while driving. Mebane does the same. He also observes certain rituals to speed his performance during an auction: He tries not to eat for at least 45 minutes before a sale and drinks only room-temperature water or tea. Auctions can last more than 12 hours and include thousands of cattle.
“I’ve recorded myself over the years,” Mebane says. “I can listen to myself five years ago, and it’s completely different.” He compares his chant now to a boom that “gets out there, catches attention.” Whether or not he wins the world championship next year — along with the coveted title, he’d get a one-year lease on a pickup, a belt buckle, and a cash prize — Mebane sees his chant as an endless work in progress. “It’s not a job that you go to, nine to five, and can’t wait until work is over with,” he says. “If it was ever like that to a person, you should probably find something else to do.”